Religious Beliefs

What does the term “revelation” mean in Islamic tradition?

Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an, consistently refers to itself as the word that God has “sent down” (tanzil, pronounced tanZEEL) to humankind through Muhammad. That which is “sent down” represents a manifestation of truths that have existed from all eternity in the heavenly archetype of the Qur’an known as the “Mother of the Book.” God reveals by communicating in a language understandable to the intended audience. Both the Qur’an and subsequent Muslim tradition describe the actual process of revelation by a technical term (wahy) that distinguishes prophetic revelation from the kinds of “inspiration” that animate holy persons and artists, for example. The prophetic intermediary “hears” the message, not with physical ears but with the ears of the spirit and heart. Some descriptions of revelation suggest a visionary dimension as well, as when the angel Gabriel or another mysterious unnamed presence appears.

According to both Qur’an and Hadith, Muhammad received revelations in a wide variety of circumstances. In some cases revelation is given in response to a particular question asked of the Prophet. In others, Muhammad is described as praying, preaching, eating, or even bathing. Muhammad is said to have experienced a variety of actual sensations when he received a revelation. He spoke of a sound like bees humming around his face, or a loud bell, the sound of which was physically painful. Sometimes he broke into a cold sweat or showed signs like those of a trance or seizure. All of the prophets are said to have experienced similar forms of revelation. What is most significant here is Muhammad’s overwhelming sense of the divine presence at these moments.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Religion Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App